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June 2024
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5 Myths About the Life of a Professional Speaker

A closer look at free to fee.

By Silvana Clark

Silvana Clark
At a training session in Enterprise, Alabama, Silvana Clark speaks to staff who volunteer at camps for foster kids.

It’s happened to most of us. You just finish giving a great speech at a club meeting or even a district contest, and someone says, “You were great! Why don’t you consider becoming a professional speaker!” You start mulling over the idea. Wouldn’t it be great to be paid thousands of dollars to give a speech at a luxury conference center in Hawaii with accommodations in a hotel suite included? That’s what happens to professional speakers, isn’t it?

Well … not quite. Granted, there are a few high-profile speakers who make a living speaking at major conferences and getting paid major fees. After being self-employed as a professional speaker for the last 25 years, let me dispel some of the myths about life as a professional speaker.

1 It’s easy to get hired as a professional speaker.

Unless you just landed an Airbus A320 on the Hudson River like American pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger did, or you discovered a cure for acne, you’ll have to market yourself to get paid to speak. This means hours of researching conferences and organizations that need speakers on your specific topic.

One of the most common ways I get booked is by submitting proposals to various conferences. Do I like filling out pages of forms asking for my goals and objectives for every speech I plan to give? No. Do I like having to negotiate my fee and who will pay my airfare? No. But do I enjoy giving the speeches? Yes! Which is why I submit all the tedious paperwork time and time again. I have one association that has booked me 10 years in a row and they still ask me to fill out a redundant proposal every year.

You may be an amazing speaker at Toastmasters, but meeting planners across the country don’t know that. It’s up to you to write articles for trade associations, do radio (or TV!) interviews and have an up-to-date website. You’ll often hear, “Give some free speeches at Rotary clubs or civic groups and those members will hire you.” Giving free speeches provides you with the opportunity to hone your speaking skills, which is invaluable. However, unless someone in the audience is directly involved in hiring speakers, you probably won’t get many paid bookings from those groups. Professional speakers will tell you they spend more time on marketing themselves than they do giving an actual 45-minute speech.

2 You’ll be an overnight sensation!

In Toastmasters, you may get a call on Monday asking you to give a speech on Tuesday to fill in for a sick club member. As a professional speaker, I may submit a proposal in April and have to wait until August to find out if I was selected to speak at a conference in November … followed by waiting 30 days to get paid! It easily can take years to get enough paid speeches to live on. Yes, you’ll hear about the superstar who gave one speech at a Rotary club and suddenly can’t keep up with the requests for more speeches around the world. In reality, the speeches will probably trickle in until you build momentum. Don’t quit your day job yet!

3 Set a fee for your speeches and you’ll get paid.

Think how easy it is to come to a club meeting and give your five- to seven-minute speech. Someone may have called to confirm the date, but you certainly didn’t have to negotiate a fee. Here’s what often happens as a professional speaker. You receive a call or email from a meeting planner saying they’d heard about you and want to know if you can speak at their conference. They’d like you to give a 45-minute keynote and two additional 90-minute workshops. (I can hear some of you saying, “I’d never have that much content!”) Then the meeting planner says they can pay you XXX amount. However, your normal fee is XXXX amount for just a keynote. This is a national conference with an association you want to connect with.

If you are like me, your stomach starts churning as you tactfully explain why you charge what you do, knowing the possibility of losing the deal is strong. The meeting planner is persuasive, saying how the “exposure” you will receive at their conference will give you so much business.

While professional speakers have different policies, most try to keep with a set fee. And meeting planners, especially those in the same industry, talk to each other. I’ve had a few (awkward) instances when a meeting planner calls and says, “You charged us XXXX for your speech and I just heard you spoke at another conference for only XXX. That’s not fair!” I’ve solved that situation by keeping a specific fee, yet letting people know I do one reduced-fee speech per month, which they can “apply” for.

4 Anyone can give an hour-long keynote.

How long does it take you to prepare for an eight- to 10-minute Toastmasters speech? Now think about the preparation needed to present a 45- to 60-minute keynote plus an additional hour-long workshop. Many meeting planners like speakers to present several times, saving the organization the cost of paying airfare and hotel fees for additional speakers.

It’s up to you to write articles for trade associations, do radio (or TV!) interviews and have an up-to-date website.

I frequently speak on workplace issues arising when baby boomers work with millennials. Recently, I was hired to give a 90-minute keynote along with a 60-minute workshop. That’s a long period of time to keep the audience’s attention while speaking on one topic! Those two sessions involved some lecturing, several role-playing situations, two small-group activities, a fun test for the audience on millennial characteristics and a humorous skit. (All without the use of PowerPoint!) Before you start marketing yourself as a professional speaker, make sure you have enough solid information and knowledge to give lengthy speeches.

5 Audiences will love you, just like club members do.

Toastmasters are kind and tactful. Give a rambling, disorganized and unprepared speech and they will still evaluate you with, “I think if you spent a little more time preparing your speech you could have developed three clear points. But your facial expressions were great!” Audiences at conferences and meetings are not so gentle! I saw one professional speaker cry after getting a scathing evaluation on her presentation. I’ve had people tell me to get a wardrobe consultant, that I sounded like a frustrated housewife and that my high energy gave them a headache. My favorite “critique” was from a man who came up to me after a keynote and said, “Look, you were great. I learned a lot. However, you’re going to get a negative evaluation from my co-worker. He said you remind him of his ex-wife!”

Some professional speakers simply don’t read their evaluations. In one case, a meeting planner told me I ranked the highest on evaluations from 200 speakers at her conference. Yet one person at that conference told me I was ignorant, didn’t know my facts and should never be asked back again. We know you can’t please everyone, but you do need to be levelheaded when getting feedback from groups not as polite as Toastmasters!

So should you give up your dream of being a professional speaker? Of course not. Just keep in mind the process requires patience, hard work and creativity. The reward can be a job that lets you do what you love best … sharing your message with ¬≠audiences around the country.


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